Sport in the UK has recently been under the spotlight in relation to allegations of child abuse, in particular in the context of allegations of historical abuse. This has rightly served to highlight the critical importance of sports bodies now having sufficiently robust child protection and safeguarding policies and procedures in place in order to seek to prevent abuse from happening in the first place and to respond effectively when concerns do arise.
Esports are of course no different in this respect, and there are a number of reasons why esports may present something of a risk area in terms of child protection, including:
- A significant proportion of esports participants and the esports audience are children and young persons (i.e. those under the age of 18);
- The regulation of the industry - both in terms of self-regulation and government regulation - remains at an early stage of development (although it is clear that the industry has caught the eye of regulators); and
- The industry is somewhat fragmented, with no obvious entity that could (yet at least) take a firm lead in relation to child protection and safeguarding matters (for example, as a governing body would do in sports with a more traditional or settled structure), so each esports organisation needs to grasp the issue itself.
The key question that an esports organisation should ask itself in the first instance is where there are foreseeable risks to under-18s arising from its activities. In doing so, such abuse should not be thought of as limited to sexual abuse, but also to include physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, and any other behaviour that may be harmful to children.
Most obviously, risks arise – both online and offline - where individuals have direct and unsupervised access to under-18s (including where under-18s have direct and unsupervised access to other under-18s). In an esports context, that could include (by way of examples only) online 'grooming' and bullying where websites include features such as voice communication, instant messaging, forums etc., and the coaching of under 18s to play esports.
Once any risk areas are identified, the next step is to determine how those risks are best managed. Typically, this can be achieved through the introduction of robust policies, procedures and guidance that seek to prevent abuse and to ensure that any allegations can be appropriately dealt with. For example, competition organisers would be well advised to have online and offline abuse reporting procedures and clear rules enabling them to restrict the participation of individuals who present foreseeable risk to children from participating in any activities organised by the competition organiser, as well as the ability to share information with third parties in order to protect children (for example with relevant law enforcement agencies and other esports organisations).
Responsible esports organisations will also be keen to ensure that any content that is not suitable for children of certain ages will not be directed towards them and, indeed, that there are measures in place to seek to ensure that such material is not readily viewable by such children. That will be the case, for example, in relation to any gambling content (the Gambling Commission recently making it plain that taking action against anyone offering facilities for gambling to children and young people is a high priority).
Currently however, in the UK at least, the position in relation to age restrictions and esports is not entirely straightforward.
Online video games and events
In the UK, age ratings for most video games are governed by the Video Recordings Act 1984 (VRA 1984) and the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) standard, with age ratings being judged against content such as drugs, sex, violence and gambling.
Under the VRA 1984, it is an offence to supply an age rated game to an underage child. However, those provisions only apply to physical, boxed games, and they do not therefore apply to games that are only supplied online, on mobile platforms or for download only.
It therefore appears to be the case that there is no statutory restriction to enabling underage children to view age restricted videogames online. So, for example, allowing (or not preventing) children to view an 18+ game such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare would not result in the commission of a statutory offence.
That being said, responsible esports organisations may take the view that, as a matter of best practice, a PEGI rating should nonetheless guide who they enable to spectate and introduce age restricting mechanisms accordingly e.g. requiring users to enter their date of birth.
Real world events
Under the Licensing Act 2003, licenses are required from local authorities for the staging of (amongst other things) (i) the "exhibition of a film" and (ii) "indoor sporting events".
The "exhibition of a film" means "any exhibition of moving pictures" and, in this context, "sport" is stated as "includ[ing] (a) any game in which physical skill is the predominant factor, and (b) any form of physical recreation which is also engaged in for purposes of competition or display."
So, whilst there might be some scope for argument as to whether any given esports event meets those definitions, the far safer view is that the physical staging of an esports event would require the obtaining of a licence from the relevant local authority under one or both of the above definitions.
In the broadly analogous context of cinemas and age restricted movies, cinemas are subject to licensing conditions that require admission of children to any film to be restricted in accordance with the relevant age rating. Whilst local authorities have reasonable latitude in regard to licensing, it is to be expected that a similar approach might be adopted in relation to any esports events.
The prevention of harm to children is, of course, exceptionally important for a whole host of reasons (primarily of course for its own sake, but also to reduce legal and reputational risks that may arise from inadequate protection). The risks in relation to child abuse can typically be mitigated to a significant degree, and esports organisations would therefore be wise to review their approach in this area to ensure a safe environment for children and young adults engaged in esports.
 Many sports organisations do currently have such robust policies and procedures in place, in significant part due to the work of the Child Protection in Sport Unit (a partnership between the NSPCC and public sports bodies). See https://thecpsu.org.uk/ .